ALAMEDA -- Not long after she began working as education manager on the USS Hornet, Heidi Schave found herself alone on the retired aircraft carrier and floating museum.

"It was an admin holiday and no one had told me," she said.

That was unsettling realization No. 1. Unsettling realization No. 2: She wasn't really alone.

Schave was sitting in her office, she said, when "it got really cold. I saw a man in a blue uniform. He was clear as day, like you or I, but he wasn't making any eye contact. He was sort of slow moving. There was a bulkhead there, and he walked right through the bulkhead."

Schave is certain she saw one of the spirits that make the Hornet a bucket-list destination for those interested in paranormal activity. And, those enthusiasts claim, a post-bucket-list destination for apparitions.

The spirits will have company Saturday and Sunday, when a summit of sorts will be held on the Hornet to study and, hopefully, observe the phenomenon. Paracon 2013 will feature guest speakers including Bill Murphy and Paul Bradford from the Syfy Channel, and local paranormal researchers Pamela Heath and Sommer Carter. Ticket proceeds from the event will provide transportation for students to visit the Hornet and experience its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program, using the ship as a learning resource. There will be flashlight tours of the ship -- including some areas usually off-limits -- and overnight accommodations.


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By the way, Heath said skeptics -- and she knows a few -- are not only invited, they're welcome, because they challenge assumptions made by paranormal investigators.

"I don't have a problem with skeptics," she said. "They help us design better research. I know people who volunteer on the Hornet and are skeptical. They'll tell you they don't believe ghosts exist. Be curious. That's what I would say. If it's not paranormal, what it is it? Figure it out for yourself."

The odds of a visitor, skeptical or not, rubbing elbows with a ghost?

"I've done many, many investigations there," said Carter, who had her first paranormal experience at 16 when she saw a vision of a 19th-century woman in a museum. "There hasn't been one time where we didn't get something."

The ship's bewildering maze of low-ceilinged corridors and anterooms can make visitors feel as if they're navigating a netherworld trapped somewhere between sea and sky. Rooms stacked floor to ceiling with bunks are eerily quiet. The sick bay, its examination tables covered in fresh linen and shelves lined neatly with medical texts, appears to be in a perpetual state of alert. It seems that around every dark corner are more unexpected curios that add to the surreal: a rotary phone and manual typewriter on a Formica-topped desk, a framed picture of President Richard Nixon, file cabinets with pullout drawers, each with its own combination lock.

Heath was an anesthesiologist when she "started having psychic experiences, which really freaked me out." She decided to study what scared her, earning a doctorate in parapsychology. That, in turn, led her to the Hornet, which she said is unusual not only for the level of activity, but for the type. Contrary to lore that suggests the ship is haunted by agitated ghosts of servicemen who were killed or committed suicide onboard, Heath claims most spirits there are friendly.

"It's a different type spirit than you usually see," she said. "Most places you investigate have stuck spirits. They haven't moved on to the other side. Most of the spirits here are spirit guides. They came back to run the ship. They loved this ship. They loved their country. A lot of them, they're back to serve."

Carter said she feels a heavy presence in the ready rooms: small, cramped quarters just below the flight deck, where pilots used to receive preflight instructions before being catapulted into life-or-death combat missions.

"I've seen shadow figures around the ready rooms," she said. "I've had flashlights turn on and off on their own. Are they going about their business and we're just going about ours? Are we interacting? It's probably a little of both."

The forecastle, a cold, cavernous area at the front of the boat where enormous anchor chains lie about, also is said to be fertile ground. During her first week on the job, Schave was in that area and heard a disembodied voice whisper next to her.

"I think when you're around a place that's active like this," she said, "and you have a sensitivity already, it intensifies over the years."

Speaking of intensity, Schave said there was a frenzy of activity during an electrical storm last spring.

"You could feel that everything was charged," she said. "Things got pulled off beds in the sick bay -- mattresses, heavy stuff. Objects moving. That kind of stuff takes more energy, so it's not as common."

Heath finds activity everywhere, especially in the sick bay. During a recent tour she went from bunk to bunk, holding her palm above each mattress. "Not many (spirits) here today," she reported.

Though an empty aircraft carrier, with its catacombs, echoes and intense history would seem to be the ideal venue for connecting with the afterlife, Heath said no.

"It's not a good spot because it's hard to eliminate normal causes (of sounds and light)," she said. "But in terms of just the sheer experience of it, yes, especially with spirits that aren't going to hurt you, by and large. Most of them are pretty good guys."

"For somebody who's never been there before, it's easy to get lost," Carter said. "In that sense, yeah, that part's scary. As far as the paranormal part, I don't know if I'm just weird, but I find it's exciting."

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.

If you go
What: Paracon 2013
Where: USS Hornet, 707 W. Hornet Ave., Pier 3, Alameda
When: Saturday and Sunday
Speakers: Bill Murphy and Paul Bradford from the Syfy Channel; paranormal researcher Pamela Heath; Heidi Schave, education manager for the USS Hornet; Sommer Carter from Alameda Paranormal Researchers; ghost hunter Alejandro Dominguez
Tickets: Level 1 access, $100: includes paranormal conference admission, pre-investigation dinner, three-hour paranormal investigation with featured speakers. Level 2 access, $175: includes all paranormal conference activities, lunch, pre-investigation dinner, overnight paranormal investigation, overnight accommodations aboard the ship, and breakfast the following morning. Level 3, $100: overnight investigation only; includes pre-investigation dinner, overnight paranormal investigation, overnight accommodations aboard the ship, and breakfast the following morning.
Proceeds: Benefit the USS Hornet's STEM (Science, Technology, Education and Math) program.
About the USS Hornet: The USS Hornet is a retired aircraft carrier that served in World War II and the Vietnam War and retrieved Apollo 11 crew members from the Pacific Ocean after they returned from the first manned lunar landing. The Hornet also is a floating museum open to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and it's available for private events.
For tickets and Paracon details: 510-521-8448, ext: 224; or www.uss-hornet.org/calendar/mysteryovernight/#greyghost